Snow drifts down like white ash and covers a world bent with sorrow this morning. Today, we step into the season of Lent; Ash Wednesday is the day we acknowledge our humanity—that I was made from dust and to dust I will return. It is a time of repentance, a time to acknowledge our frailty—both in sin and mortality—and turn. The ashes crossed on our foreheads serve to remind of the broken debris of this life and that to live for Christ, we must die with him.
Our little valley has been buried under snow these past days, a gift from winter storm Octavia. School has been closed all week and special services at church have been cancelled. We are sheltering in. That means no Ash Wednesday service tonight, no imposition of ashes, no prayer of repentance to whisper together this evening.
A while back my pastor asked me if I would like to help plan and participate in our Ash Wednesday service. Together, we laid out the bulletin. Last week, we smoked up the church parlor as we burned last year’s Palm Sunday palms into ashes. I’ve been reading Sara Miles’s book City of God: Faith in the Streets to open my heart to the beauty of the tradition of the ashes. It’s the story of her experiences carrying ashes out of the church and into the streets, sharing this sacred ritual with her neighbors and the broken people in the diverse neighborhood where she lives. I haven’t finished the book yet, but her candor and her tender heart for God’s people convicts me.
This morning, I finish up chapter nine, which has Miles and a group of volunteers—laypersons and ordained clergy alike—gathering to prepare for their outdoor “Ashes to Go” service. One volunteer is Vera, who Miles learns had an older sister who killed herself on Ash Wednesday a few years ago.
“That year,” said Vera, “there was a really early Easter. It was such an offense. I couldn’t bear it: how could Lent be just like the blink of an eye, when Lent is the world we live in?”
Lent is the world we live in.
“Ash Wednesday is like a homecoming for me,” Vera continued. “It’s the most honest of days. It’s a mystery, a sitting-with. A sitting with the dark. It is bearing witness to the dark.”
Today, on this most honest of days, I weep for the brokenness of our world. We live in the world of the ashes, a world where innocents are murdered in the name of religion, a world where brother lifts hand against brother and snuffs out the most sacred of all gifts, life. I have not watched the video. I cannot bear to look at the stills of those orange-clad figures kneeling by the sea. The images have burned a hole in my memory, imprinting all the pain and sorrow and injustice that this world offers.
Yes, Lent is the world we live in. In the early days Lent was a time of preparation for babtism. And isn’t this a baptism of sorts? This full immersion in the broken, the sorrow, the anguish that is this hurting world? There is no escaping the injustice and the ugliness that claims us.
We are lost without Easter. We are lost without the grace of God.
Miles says, “And the only way out of it, on Ash Wednesday as on any day, is repentance. Not feeling bad, but changing. Not pouring ashes on your head in a fit of self-loathing, but allowing Jesus to gently spit into a handkerchief and scrub off your face.”
Change. Transformation. This is what belonging to Jesus means. That our hearts of stone will be made into soft clay. The Book of Common Prayer begins the Ash Wednesday liturgy with a prayer, and it seems a fitting way to end here. For no words of mine could ever capture the great weight we carry as citizens of heaven.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.